[the forest secrets]Exploring Suffolk’s ‘island of secrets’

2021-08-06

  At first sight, Orford is an English village idyll, all charm and order, its green meticulously mown, roses sprawling over its Georgian red-brick cottages, dog-walkers smiling and saying hello. “Do you know that man?” my London-bred four-year-old asked when I greeted a passing stranger — he now disarms every grownup he sees with a casual “hi”.

  Sailing boats zigzag on the River Ore, which hugs the village before it corkscrews inland. Families catch crabs at the end of the quay. The newspaper kiosk has an honesty box, there’s a country market on Saturdays selling chutneys, cakes and crafts, and — pre-Covid — sea shanties rang out from the Jolly Sailor pub.

  But you don’t have to dig very deep to find mystery and intrigue bubbling beneath the surface of this historic Suffolk spot, an important medieval port before longshore drift pushed it from the open sea.

  My favourite piece of local folklore is the tale of the Wild Man of Orford. I first heard it on a tour of Orford’s 12th-century castle keep — it and the Norman church tower over the village like sunflowers. During Henry II’s reign, when the castle was built, fishermen caught a hirsute, naked man in their nets. When he wouldn’t speak, they threw him in the castle prison, poked and prodded him and hung him upside down, but he still didn’t utter a word. Eventually, the merman was cast back into the harbour and away, apparently, he swam.

  The village of Orford with its 12th-century castle keep and Norman church towerThe village of Orford with its 12th-century castle keep and Norman church tower ? Daniel Castro García

  Sutton Hoo, where the buried Anglo-Saxon ship, grave of a mystery king, was discovered (and dramatised in Netflix’s recent The Dig), is 10 miles west of Orford. Closer still is Rendlesham Forest, where, in 1980, American servicemen reported seeing strange lights hovering over the pine forest and professed them to be UFOs.

  “One of the joys for a writer living in Orford is that the line between what is true and what is fictitious is very hard to define,” the author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, who has a home here and has set several books in the area, told me. And the greatest concentration of mysteries lies across the river, on a peninsula called Orford Ness.

  Orford Suffolk map for House & Home

  The largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe, Orford Ness was, for most of the 20th century, a top-secret Ministry of Defence test site. Pioneering aviation, radio communications and weaponry, including the atomic bomb, were developed on what locals dubbed the “Island of Secrets”, its perimeter patrolled by burly men with dogs. “Orford Ness has it all, the cold war, the invention of radar, rumours about the bouncing bomb and the stealth bomber being tested, mysteries about dead bodies being washed up,” says Horowitz. “It’s like living in the middle of a Robert Harris or an Enid Blyton or both. It’s an extraordinary landscape and endlessly fascinating.”

  Orford Ness, the largest vegetated shingle spit in EuropeOrford Ness, the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe ? Daniel Castro García

  The only flying objects here now are the birds. The Ness was decommissioned in 1971 and for two decades was used by locals as a rather risky — given the unexploded ordnance — playground and picnic spot. Since the National Trust bought it in 1993, the focus has turned to nature conservation and visitors, who must book tickets in advance, are confined to a number of designated footpaths. Marsh harriers, barn owls, lapwings and avocets now nest in the many crumbling buildings; supersized hares and tiny deer roam the marshland and shingle.

  The Ness was closed to visitors in 2020 because of Covid, and despite having come to Orford many times, I’ve never set foot on it. When I heard that the abandoned buildings and odd animals were being joined by a series of art installations this summer — a project called Afterness curated by Artangel, an organisation that places conceptual art in unusual places — I booked in for a preview.

  Tatiana Trouvé’s artwork ‘The Residents’, in one of the Ness’s disused military buildings

  Orford Ness’s disused military buildings are being used as the setting for a new art exhibition, Afterness, which opened last week

  ‘The Shelter’ by Alice Channer, which references military operations conducted on Orford Ness between 1938 and 1959

  ‘The Shelter’ by Alice Channer, which references military operations conducted on Orford Ness between 1938 and 1959 ? Daniel Castro García

  After crossing the river in the small ferry, I call at the Ness’s Information Centre, where a vintage MOD sign prohibits “photography and sketching”. I’m given a headset with recordings of poems by Ilya Kaminsky and encouraged to listen to them as I walk between the artworks. I prefer to buy a booklet to read later and focus on the Ness’s own melancholy soundtrack: the baying wind, gulls shrieking, the crunch of pebbles underfoot, and, when I cross to the other side of the peninsula, the sea.

  The air feels heavy; you can sense the murky history here, and when I catch sight of an aluminium bramble waving through the window of an abandoned military building, thorns glinting, I assume it’s a relic of the Ness’s top-secret past. Then I see the tangled briar sculpture it belongs to inside, the work of artist Alice Channer. As I walk towards it, a hare of Alice in Wonderland proportions leaps in front of me, hops rapidly through a patch of pink and yellow poppies and disappears into the shingle. Soon after, I spot a deer so small it looks as if it’s been tumble-dried.

  ‘The Shelter’. part of the project by Artangel that puts conceptual art in unusual places

  ‘The Shelter’ bursts forth from a disused building

  Tatiana Trouvé’s artwork ‘The Residents’

  Part of Tatiana Trouvé’s artwork ‘The Residents’ ? Daniel Castro García

  There’s a lot on the Ness for the three physical Afterness artworks to compete with — the decaying test buildings, control boxes rusting on the walls, wires swinging from the ceilings; the lumps of shrapnel on the shingle that plants have adopted as flowerpots. The most successful installation and complement to the eerie environment is Tatiana Trouvé’s The Residents. Trouvé has filled leaky Lab 1 with discarded belongings: books, shoes, and suitcases. As I wonder whose she imagines them to have been and what they’ve fled, I realise that the books are not made of paper, but marble; the shoes and suitcases are bronze.

  If conceptual art, mermen and military secrets aren’t reasons enough for a stay in Orford, there’s also fantastic food. After making the five-minute boat trip back to the quay, I cycle to Butley River, where scenes from The Dig were filmed, to meet Bill Pinney, who has worked for Pinney’s, the oyster and smokery business his father started, for the last half-century.

  Pinney’s emblem is the Wild Man of Orford; its restaurant, the Butley Orford Oysterage, is a low-key spot with marble-topped tables and a chalkboard menu. Every meal I’ve had here has been memorable. In addition to the local oysters, my must-orders are the nutmeg-spiced potted crab and a fat, juicy, skate wing, swimming in brown butter sauce and capers.

  Boats on the River Ore

  Boats on the River Ore ? Daniel Castro García

  As well as sole, bass and those delicious skate, Bill Pinney has fished weapons from the river, including, in 1970, a British mine the size of a mooring buoy. “We called out bomb disposal and they blew it up on the marsh,” he tells me. “It went off with a really good crack.” After pointing out his rock oyster beds, he plucks a purified oyster from a tank and knifes it open for me. It is plump and sweet, so tasty on its own, in fact, that I wonder why I’ve been adding lemon juice and tabasco all this time.?

  Orford’s other gourmet destination is a relative newcomer. Serial hobbyist and semi-retiree Chris Brennan started selling his sourdough loaves at Orford’s country market a decade ago; the proceeds funded a new fence at Orford primary school. When the fence had been paid for and a 15th-century building became available in the centre of the village, he and his daughter, Joanna, decided to go professional, and Pump Street Bakery, now a multiple award-winner, was born.

  

  The Pump Street Bakery, famous for its single-origin chocolate and almond croissants

  The company is now better known for its single-origin chocolate, which sells internationally (there’s a shop opposite the bakery), but there are queues down the street for the pink bakery, an Instagram star and popular pit-stop for the herds of Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra) who cycle flat Suffolk. The star pastries, which should really be eaten only after a lengthy bike ride, are the almond croissants. More pudding than breakfast, they’re made the traditional French way, from day-old croissants soaked in Armagnac and filled with frangipane.

  Pump Street’s flaky sausage rolls and square quiches make great picnic food, and my family and I often take them to the thumbnail sandy beach at Iken Cliff, a 10-minute drive from Orford, where the River Alde’s banks become wide and reedy, seals laze on the mudflats and you can swim at high tide.

  A cottage in the medieval village of Orford

  A cottage in the medieval village of Orford

  Flowers in the village

  Roses in the village ? Daniel Castro García

  Across the estuary is Iken’s ancient, part-thatched St Botolph’s Church, where an intricate Saxon cross was discovered in 1977. From here, you can walk to Snape Maltings, an arts complex set in Victorian buildings originally used to malt barley for beer, which has been home to Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival since 1967. The site now includes not only music venues but shops, cafés and art galleries, as well as sculpture by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ryan Gander — my children have found the latter’s make excellent climbing frames — all backed by fields of golden reeds.

  After a year of stop-and-start programming, Snape has a packed, if socially distant, summer schedule planned, including performances by Rufus Wainwright and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The venue is also adding an outdoor facility, called the Dome Stage, offering free, daytime concerts — it will have, says chief executive Roger Wright, “a sort of festival feel.”

  The Riverside Tearoom on a walk along the north bank of the Alde in the direction of AldeburghThe Riverside Tearoom, on the north bank of the river ? Daniel Castro García

  The reopening of the main concert hall, which has views over the Alde, has been an emotional experience for everyone, Wright says. “Seeing musicians reconnecting with audiences is really touching,” he says, recalling the reaction of the Nash Ensemble, who performed to a large crowd for the first time in 10 months on June 5. “’Oh my goodness!’ they said as they went on, “that’s the sound of a live audience!’”?

  Wherever you go around Orford, make time for a walk from the quay, along the north bank of the river in the direction of Aldeburgh. You’ll pass the Riverside Tearoom, which does a steady trade in sausage and egg sandwiches, and Orford Sailing Club, where the masts of the boats outside jangle tunefully in the wind, before the marsh appears on your right, the mercurial sky reflected in its pools. If you’re lucky, you might see a dainty avocet or redshank picking its way through the mud.

  Kite flying beside the river at Orford

  Kite flying beside the river at Orford ? Daniel Castro García

  From here, there’s a clear view of the Ness’s Stranger Things structures over the river: the pagodas, used for atom bomb testing; the brick box labs and sinister shingly mounds. This footpath is also my favourite run, and if I go early enough, I don’t see a single other soul. I turn around when I’m level with Cobra Mist — a vast, windowless spy station used by the Americans to snoop on the Soviets, now, like everything else on the spit, disused — and double back through farmland towards the village, where I often pass a dozen swans sitting in a field. The first time I saw them, I did a double take. Now that I’m used to Orford’s idiosyncrasies, I keep on running.?

  Kate Maxwell’s first novel, ‘Hush’, will be published by Virago in May 2022

  Where to stay: The Crown & Castle has a central Orford location and restaurant serving fish from Pinney’s — Room 31 has a terrace overlooking Orford Castle (doubles from £160). Suffolk Secrets manages 22 holiday properties in Orford, ranging from a two-bedroom fisherman’s cottage to a six-bedroom, Grade II-listed house.

  Where to eat: Butley Orford Oysterage, Market Hill, Orford, pinneysoforford.co.uk. Pump Street Bakery, 1 Pump Street, Orford, pumpstreetchocolate.com.

  Music and art: Tickets for Afterness are booked through the National Trust, as are visits to the Ness, see nationaltrust.org.uk. Tickets cost £12, or £4.50 for National Trust members, which includes the ferry crossing and access to the “Island of Secrets” exhibition). For details of the summer programme at Snape Maltings see snapemaltings.co.uk.

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